Inter welcome Napoli to San Siro on Sunday, well aware that they are a wounded animal with much to lose. The Partenopei lost to Roma last time out, in a match that knocked their Scudetto ambitions. Maurizio Sarri’s men will be looking to make up for this slip, against a Nerazzurri team who have been struggling to find form in 2018. Luciano Spalletti now has some tactical decisions to make as he must decide whether to be cautious against this injured Napoli or go in for the kill.
Perhaps when the Inter Coach is thinking about his approach, he will quite possibly end up perplexed. His team played well before December and were also in contention for the Serie A title, until defeats against Udinese and Sassuolo kicked off their winter malaise. Despite only one more loss to Genoa, Spalletti’s side picked up a succession of draws and more importantly offered little in the way of performance. The 2-0 win against Benevento last time out was Inter’s 2018 in a microcosm - they won in the poorest way possible.
The Nerazzurri have quality, that is for sure, but they have not developed a style, or an approach, nor do they possess a change of pace or a plan B on the field. There have been games when they have looked electric in attack, take the game against Chievo for instance. Here, they were blistering on the flanks, with Ivan Perisic offering to share the responsibility for the goals by getting a hat-trick. This was ‘peak Inter’, a team that were solid at the back and also deadly up front, creating chances and adopting a very direct style.
This powerful approach resembled Giovanni Trapattoni’s Nerazzurri in the late 1980s, but there was a problem. This was the only game in which they managed to do this for 90 minutes. They have produced snippets of this throughout the campaign, but there haven’t been enough of them.
Inter have also performed with indomitable courage when facing the big teams. In Serie A, they have not been beaten by Juventus, Roma, Milan, Fiorentina or Napoli and, in certain games (especially against The Old Lady and the Partenopei), have kept clean sheets, looking very organised at the back. It is true that these have been somewhat backs-to-the-walls performances, but the argument is that, if they had done and continued to do this against the top sides, plus beat the lesser teams, they may have mounted a Scudetto challenge.
Not beating the lesser teams has been the main issue. The defeats to Udinese and Sassuolo at the back-end of 2017 were disappointing, but in 2018, after good results against Roma and Fiorentina, they had a chance to rectify their season. SPAL, Crotone, Genoa, Bologna and Benevento offered the Beneamata points to take, yet they’ve only beat two of those outfits and lost to the Grifone. This timidness in front of goals is a new development, and the lack of collective responsibility in the team for getting amongst the goals also doesn’t help. Too much is left on Mauro Icardi’s shoulders.
Spalletti will perplexed for this very reason. It is not how he should approach Napoli that is the issue. He certainly will not be confident that his team are capable mentally or technically to go and attack Napoli as they did when playing Chievo. The issue here is that if they do not, the Neapolitans will quickly grow into the game, and their ability will test Inter’s resolve.
Should the Tuscan, in turn, consider a more defensive approach like he has when facing the big teams? This is also a risk as his troops are not looking as rigid as they were at the start of the campaign, and it is unlikely that they can contain a full-on assault by Napoli for 90 minutes. It may be his best option if he can hope to use the likes of Rafinha and Yann Karamoh to hit them on the break, but it will lead to some tense moments.
Maybe it’s this lack of tactical options that has brought about Inter’s biggest criticism so far this campaign. He has a group of players who are talented and have technical ability but lack mentality of and an understanding of any specific style or ability to transition in game. This has led to many below-par performances, like the ones at Benevento or Bologna for example, when the game has been won thanks to the will of an individual rather than the will of the collective. Spalletti is perhaps trying to understand why he doesn’t have options against Napoli, rather than which to use to beat them.